October 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“In the virtual, we are no longer dealing with value; we are merely dealing with a turning-into-data, a turning-into-calculations, a generalized computation in which reality-effects disappear. The virtual might be said to be truly the reality-horizon, just as we talk about the event-horizon in physics. But it is also possible to think that all this is merely a roundabout route towards an as yet indiscernible aim.”
Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso. 2003: 40-41.
November 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It’s not highly original to invoke a pathological metaphor for describing a nation. But panic is different. Because it contains a threshold between individual and collective forms of asocial behavior. Take the example of the highway. As I have claimed before, America is organized around the highway as a means of transportation, a means of communication and it may also serve as a general metaphor of sociability. Each auto-nomous unit traveling on the highway tries to stay in motion, and reach their destinations with the least troublesome effort. There are only a few rules and separate lanes make orientation easy. But as soon as there are too many automobiles, erratic drive patterns begin to increase, as many start looking for their own advantage by changing lanes frequently, accelerating and breaking more often, thereby disturbing the otherwise smooth flow of vehicles. Although all are oriented in one direction, the disturbance in the pattern of flow creates ripples way beyond the congested zones. I think of panic as something like this rippling of disturbances that occurs for no immediate reason, but that has real effects elsewhere.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes individual forms of panic as anxieties that are not shared or even perceived by others. Clues of the environment are interpreted in only one direction – to increase panic, threat, helplessness – which can amount to becoming a sense of self (perception). Panic as a collective behavior is most often associated with natural disasters or economic panics. Watch the holiday videos made in Southeast Asia during the 2004 tsunami, where the same big wave that was great fun at the beach tips over to become a lethal threat. This moment of changing perception describes panic. Similar in economic panics. A small number of investors begin to see a threat, a decline in returns, and begin to sell unprofitable assets. Like the driver on the highway changing lanes quickly, they cause disturbance in the usual behavior of others by disappointing chiefly the expectations of others as to what constitutes ‘normal behavior’. They signal a change in the very ‘normalcy’ and contribute to a collective rethinking of procedures among all others. This, in turn, makes the situation worse. Whatever the decisive factors in a panic situation, each has a moment of passing a threshold from normalcy to emergency.
When a crowd gets into a panic, it is unable to look for the source of its unease, unable to change the situation or even analyze possible solutions. Panic breaks out when a certain number of people gets uneasy at more or less the same time. As they see the conditions of ‘normalcy’ dissolve, they start violently defending their own self-interest against the interests of others. When a large crowd of people, at concerts or demonstrations, gets into a bottleneck situation, a long time will pass before individuals start to protest or move out of the situation. It’s the time before the threshold and the level of tolerance seems to be very high, assuming that anyone will prefer a state of normalcy – even in distress – to a state of emergency.
Yet, after passing the threshold of realizing panic, the cycle of self-interest eating up social norms begins. Panic breaks out. Defending one’s own self interest against all others, in turn, provokes the exact same reaction. In a panic situation, help can only come from the outside or through a sudden change of the situation. Panic is a defense mechanism and will subside as the threat that caused it disappears.
By breaking the thin tissue of normal social conduct and interaction panic questions the assumed normalcy of our environment, of our sociability and brings up a residual anarchic element in human psyche that is all about survival of the fittest. The pursuit of self-interest suddenly becomes apparent in its asocial consequences during a panic situation:
“[T]he usual rules according to which individuals adjust their behaviour so as not to work at cross-purposes are nullified. In the more dramatic instances of collective panic, people trample on one another in vain efforts to reach safety.” [A panic situation] “encourages the intensified pursuit of individual rather than collective goals.” (LMK (Lewis M. Killian)/NJS (Neil J. Smelser) “Collective Behaviour” (pp. 556-567). The New Encyclopeadia Britannica, Macropedia, vol. 16, 15th edition, 1988, Chicago: Encyclopeadia Britannica Inc. p. 561).
Panic describes the moment of the threshold, not its cause or effect. “Panic America” then neither postulates that America is panicky, nor that it’s more prone to such disorders than other nations. America is the testing ground for the limits of the threshold of panic, constantly shifting the balance between productive self-interest and disastrous self-interest.
Modesto, California 2012
August 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Curry am Wansee. Aus dem aufsteigenden Nebel grüßt Kladow herüber. BMW-Weltcupsegler dümpeln auf dem seichten Wasser vor sich hin. Schwarzwaldhäuser am Uferrand. “Kevin, komm von dem Klettergerüst herunter, das ist nass”. Sagt eine Frau zu ihren Freunden, dem Spielplatz zugewandt: “… und das steht hier, seit wir damals nach Berlin gezogen sind. Der Kleine wollte da immer rauf”. Damals in den 80′ern, als im See noch ein Zaun den Blick in die Freiheit der Welt versperrte – also aus der anderen Perspektive. Der weltgewandte Lebenskünstler, schlank, locker, herzend-scherzend grüßt die Schüchterne im Petrolkleid zum Abschied anzüglich: “That’s all I want” (baby, aber das sagt er nicht). Eine sichere Sache. Sie kommen alle her, die Schwaben, die in Spandau das beste Eis der Welt gefunden haben wollen, die Radler und die Junggesellen beim Kindl aus der Flasche. Auswanderer, wer weiß woher? Der Lautenspieler spielt jetzt leise “Who will stop the rain” und der Regen hört auf.
March 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It is easy to dismiss Michael Bay’s dystopian action thriller come road movie sci-fi romance “The Island” (2005) as a failed “Matrix” runner-up. In fact, most critics seem to agree on the point that the film wants to include too many classic action movie elements into a challenging story line on human cloning – and fails to satisfy expectations within the short time frame of 130 minutes (See www.rottentomatoes.com/m/island/). And yet, for all its polished aesthetics, including the protagonists’ unisex surfaces called Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), the film also asks a fundamental question about individuality and its value in a consumerist society.
At first sight, all the elements of a classic action/sci-fi thriller appear in place: a dubious multi-billion dollar corporation cloning human organs and babies, run by an evil scientist with a god complex, who has created a minimal-stimulus, isolated, subterranean lifeworld to house his “products”. All of the inhabitants of this clinical environment lead identical lives, go to the same workplaces, wear the same clothes, live in identical cubicles, and are closely monitored by managing and security staff. Technologically overwhelmed and constantly under surveillance, all inhabitants accept their fate without doubt, dreaming of winning the daily lottery for a place on “the Island”, the last inhabitable spot on earth – as they are told.
But of course, the quarantine of this place is not perfect. Borders are permeable. And Lincoln begins to question “where all these tubes go” that he and his colleagues are filling with nutrients, day in, day out. His acquaintance with a maintenance guy from behind the scenes, James McCord (Steve Buscemi), makes him question the myth of the contaminated outside world. Now, surprisingly, the flight from the netherworld is not the climax of the film but appears with almost mathematical precision in the middle. What follows is another plot line, that focuses on Lincoln and Jordan seeking to “raise awareness” among the real humans, that they are getting their organs and babies from other human bodies, who are killed for the purpose. Although McCord cautions that “Just because people eat the burger doesn’t mean they wanna meet the cow” Lincoln and Jordan seek out their genetic doubles to confront them. The endeavor spins another sequence of car chases and explosives going off, which seems to start a new film altogether. Most reviewers focused on the human cloning aspect of the movie and its overbearing emphasis on the action sequences in that second part. And admittedly, here the films fails.
“It’s the New American Dream”
But going back to the beginning, the opening sequence gives the film an altogether different mood. In a dream sequence, Jordan sits atop a futuristic boat, surfing across the ocean. Lincoln approaches her from behind, and as they make contact, he is brutally gripped by two men and pulled into the water. Awaking from this sequence in his concrete, white-grey room, a computer diagnoses an “erratic REM sleep cycle”. The theme that continues through the sequences of the first part is individual aberration from the prescribed and accepted norms of the environment. The controlled environment for all clones homogenizes all elements, from clothes to drinks to work and social conduct, in order to allow only minimal sociality.
In the words of its chief engineer, the cloning of organs alone did not create the desired results. Bodies needed the feeling of being alive, even in such a reduced, sensual environment. As Dr. Merrick explains,
“After several years of trial and error we discovered that without a consciousness, without human experience, emotion, without life the organs failed.”
In order to achieve sociality (devoid of risk) and stability (devoid of alternatives), the engineers project a variety of life stories to their clone bodies at infant stage. While each body contains variants of a memory from a fake past, all of them together are bound together with a common threat, a threat that rationalizes acceptance of their condition.
“We control them with the memory of a shared event. A Global contamination. It keeps them fearful of going outside. The Island is the one thing that gives them hope. Gives them purpose. Everything we expose them to, their programs, their cartoons, books, the games they play, are designed to manage aggression and reinforce simple social skills. To avoid obvious complications they aren’t imprinted with an awareness of sex. We find it simpler to eliminate the drive altogether. In a very real sense, they’re like children, educated to the level of a 15-year old.”
Now, this entire plot immediately triggers a cultural-pessimistic perspective, a criticism of homogenization vs. individuality, control vs. freedom, Levittown suburb structures vs. historical bricolage chaos. The centralized facilities of the netherworld are the most efficient control mechanisms in which the human drives are contained in a post-histoire vacuum. Against the neon-lit caves, halls and laboratories, Jordan and Lincoln are bathed in sunlight once they have escaped. The whole film thrives on these opposition pairs in almost all of its sequences, and, admittedly, this is a fairly simplistic dramaturgy.
But on the other side, this film is not so banal as it seems. Human cloning as a way to extend life is firmly anchored in a consumerist setting which privileges those able to pay horrendous sums for “owning” a genetic duplicate of themselves while keeping those copies in a monotonous environment of self-sameness. All the clothes are white, all the Nike- shoes that Lincoln finds in his drawer are equally white, all the drinks are optimized for their levels of vitamin and nutrients. In this aesthetic monotony the missing differentiation of products only covers up the apparent self-sameness of product categories in real life. So, if the de-individualized array of products in the film plays out a powerful (yet predictable) metaphor of homogenization, it leaves the seeming differentiation of Nike shoes alive. It even affirms the schema of identical mass produced fare as a rational basis for individual choice. The film (along with its corporate sponsors) thus offers a vision of a near future, in which homogenization serves as the (visual) mechanism to leave the belief in product differentiation, freedom of choice and individuality based on consumer experience intact. The “new American Dream” of owning genetic copies of oneself is then the old American dream of “making it,” of extending life through wealth, fame and possession.
In his book Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson argued that the task of science fiction was not to deliver a plausible, detailed vision of the future but to “demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (288-89). Because a detailed account of future live forms would soon appear banal in face of the present, science fiction can “serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” Representations of the future were a function to create an awareness of the present, which is “untotalizable and hence unimaginable” (See further my article on “Images of the Cybernetic Body, or, The Banality of the Future“). In “The Island” the regulation of drives reflects the sedating power of consumption, which privileges the immediately available over the unrealistically utopian. The island in the film is an animated vision of a common hope, a constantly actualized common reference point for all entrapped in the netherworld of daily doses of moderate consumption. In keeping with the dream structure of a joint vision the film delves into a fantasy of escape that can only function within the narrow limits of the action genre. Jamesons’s perceptive analysis of the temporality of science fiction, raises the point as to how such a vision of an escape can relieve the stress of accepting that in real life such an escape is less than probable.
From the beginning sequence, “The Island” plays out the dream-like dimensions of a common fate sustained by individual ambitions. The shocking grip of the assailants who submerge Lincoln under water is at the same time a shock to prepare the viewer for the de-individualized netherworld, an environment that is aesthetically and functionally homogenized. But only through this demarcation can the film question the homogeneity of consumption that thrives on menial differentiation. The promise of an island becomes then less of an empowering vision but stands in for the unchanging (and inescapable) structure of regulation.
November 23, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Rein rechnerisch sind 5 DM immernoch 2,56 Euro aber an diesem Automatenbetreiber ist wohl ein Gutmensch verloren gegangen. Statt dessen kostet eine Packung Präservative hier nur einen Euro. Es sind wahrscheinlich auch nur noch zwei und nicht mehr fünf darinnen zu finden. Anlass genug, doch einmal einen Gedanken an die symbolische Dimension von Preisen zu verlieren.
Douglas Adams, u.a. Autor des Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, sagte einmal, dass ein jeder Prima(t)ner die Zeit seiner Pubertät als die Normalität ansieht. Zum Beispiel in Bezug auf Medien. In dieser Phase ist so ziemlich alles, was vor dem eigenen Geburtsdatum existierte unbedeutend, es sei denn, es bezieht sich auf die unmittelbare Familiengeschichte. Ab dem Moment der Pubertät gewinnen bestimmte Präferenzen für Moden und Medien Dominanz, sie werden zum Normalfall der Generation postuliert. Mit zunehmendem Alter gerinnen diese Präferenzen zur Norm einer selbst alternden Generation. Ergo wird alles, was danach folgt als Verfall der eigenen, nicht angebiederten Kultur gesehen. Man bemerkt alsobald neue, konservative Charakterzüge an sich und empfindet nun diese wiederum extrem avantgardistisch. Gegen die Konformisten ist man eben Konformist des Andersseins.
So ähnlich verhält es sich mit den Preisen für Waren. Alles wird immer teurer. Und das wird jeder Ökonom bestätigen – es muss auch. Weil Löhne steigen, weil es Inflation von Währungen gibt und weil es an dem Verbrauchsmaterial Geld aufgrund der Druckfreiheit von Staatsbanken nie einen Mangel gibt. Einen Preis von vor zwanzig Jahren als den einzig gültigen und akzeptablen anzunehmen ist so anachronistisch, wie das Familienalbum nach Neuigkeiten zu durchsuchen. Obwohl ein Brötchen zu meiner Jugend 5 Pfennig (Ost) kostete, machen mir 15 ct (Euro) keine Sorgen, obwohl das samt Kaufkraftverlust nun eigentlich eine Mark und achtzig sind. Soviel kostete eine Woche Mittagessen (im Osten). Der symbolische Preis ist wohl eher eine Wegmarke, wenn man an der stetigen Einkommensvermehrung keinen Teil mehr hat oder von ihr ausgeschlossen ist. Dass einem Preis eigentlich ein gegenseitiges Bewertungsverhältnis von Aufwand und Nutzen zugrunde liegt, stört bei dem allgegenwärtigen Preisanstieg wohl niemanden. Statt die Karre einfach stehen zu lassen, fährt der Golf jeden weiteren Kilometer um 2 oder 5 oder 36 cent pro Liter mehr und alles, was einem bleibt ist sich darüber zu beklagen. Auch die Symbolik des Automobils ist nicht mehr, was sie einmal war.